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Many people cross the U.S./Mexican border as a way of life. Ruben Martinez chronicles one particular slice of that border-crossing population in his book, "Crossing Over: A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail."

Our reporter Benjamin Adair spent some time in California farm country with Ruben, just north of the Mexican border. They talked about the epic road trip that brings people from deep inside Mexico, Central and South America, and the hardships and adventures that come with crossing the border to make ends meet. This interview begins, interestingly enough, with its own road trip to the place where Martinez first had his idea for the book.

Interview: Crossing Over With Ruben Martinez

by Benjamin Adair [Originally aired 10/5/2001]

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Ruben Martinez and I are standing at a crime scene. It's where his new book, Crossing Over, got started. It's where a pickup truck - loaded down with 27 people and being chased by law enforcement - took a turn too fast, spun out, and ended upside-down in a ditch. The camper shell collapsed in on itself. Seven people were crushed and killed at the scene...among those seven crosses, three brothers: Jaime, Benjamin, and Salvador Chavez...mourned by mother, sisters, community in Cheran, Michoacan.

Ruben: "Last time I was here, it was eerie. Up on that hill over there, there were guys working, migrant workers. The wind was blowing really hard and I heard these voices, but I couldn't tell where they were coming from. It was like the dead were speaking to me."

The accident scene...
The accident scene...

Ruben Martinez has brought me here to tell me that when he first heard about the accident, something snapped. It pulled him from his home in Mexico City to the highland plateau of central Michoacan, to Cheran, and the Chavez family. What began as simple curiosity, then, turned into a journey...deep into Mexico, to the Carolinas, St. Louis, and Wisconsin. His book Crossing Over chronicles four years on the migrant trail.

And as I walk and talk with him, his next generation of immigrant tales start looking a little like the 21st century's "On the Road." Only, no Jack, no Neal...instead, there's Wense and Rosa, the Chavez clan...Wense and Rosa wring their hands about upcoming trips north, how will Wense get the money to pay the coyote, the guide? Rosa mourns her dead brothers, but she knows she, too, must eventually go. The dangerous road to opportunity leads only north.

The memorial...
The Memorial

Martinez tells me that he, himself, got drawn in - as he crossed over and back and over again to reported this family's story.

Ruben: "Because somehow it's just in my blood...Even if one's on the road because he has to be and the other just likes the idea of it. But the idea is still very powerful for both."
Now, we talk about Jack and Neal - and not the Joads - for a reason. It's easy to get somber talking about immigration and migrants and the poor - especially during these very somber times - but the book Crossing Over has action and adventure. A family of low rider trucks and middle class homes in Norwalk, Wisconsin. Kids huffing paint thinner in sewers, directly underneath the border in Nogales, Arizona...Martinez himself getting lost in these scenes with his only guide out, a woman who says her spirit flies north at night and finds babies in Chicago crying for her healing touch.


We walk this accident scene, Martinez gets a little philosophical. We talk about how Americans value their openness, their freedoms, but there's also this tension - an arrogance that says "These things are ours and you don't belong." Martinez says, that arrogance itself becomes a kind of internal border. It keeps us from seeing this new Great American Story that's going on all around us. In fields and restaurants, big cities and small towns, interstate fast food islands and back in the beds of pickup trucks - barreling across the California desert at dangerous speeds. It keeps us from seeing that America is still doing what America does best - accepting and beginning anew.

Ruben: "...and yet, for most of America, they're invisible. Pin points of Brown in a field of white."

The memorial...
The memorial...

Savvy Resources:

Check out Ruben's book Crossing Over: A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail on Amazon.com.

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